By Jeff Brumley
Churches, ministries and clergy faced plenty of challenges in 2015.
The “nones” and the “dones” were on the rise and church attendance continued to drop. Meanwhile, the number of Christians declined sharply in the overall population while other faiths seemed to surge, researchers found.
In spite of all of that and more — and even because of it all — some say the year was one of the best on record for churches, ministries and clergy.
Those reporting silver linings range from urban missionaries to pastors to congregational coaches. All of them report ending the year especially encouraged by the responses they’ve witnessed to social, religious and political challenges.
‘So many amazing stories’
Marc and Kim Wyatt have seen plenty of good and bad this year.
The sharp rise in anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies across the country in 2015 inspired a boost in support for ministries aimed to serve those beleaguered populations, Marc Wyatt said.
As Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, the Wyatts coordinate welcoming efforts for refugees and other internationals in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
The couple saw added stress among foreigners as politicians and others sought to ban Syrian refugees and all Muslims. But those efforts resulted in a surge in financial support and in individual and congregational volunteerism in 2015, Wyatt said.
He cited examples like an employee of a refugee resettlement agency participating in their ministry during the Christmas season. They also saw settled refugees collecting and distributing goods to newcomers. And there was a rise in the number of churches asking to cook and deliver meals and provide gifts to new arrivals.
“There are so many amazing stories,” Wyatt said. “I personally think this is who the church really is.”
One of the biggest stories in 2015, he said, was the October opening of Welcome House in Raleigh. It provides housing to recently arrived refugees whose permanent living arrangements are being established.
Wyatt said the house has already been home to 23 residents whose needs are met by participating churches.
The ministry runs the home as a service to the resettlement agency overseeing the region. It’s a place where refugees have the space and time to understand that they are welcome and safe in their new environment, he said.
Wyatt compared the experience refugees have in America to that described in scripture when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape persecution.
“We don’t know how Jesus’ family was treated in Egypt but I want to believe that we are treating these new comers as we would want Jesus and his family to be treated,” Wyatt said.
And the year just passed was personally uplifting, as well, he added.
The purpose of mission work is to mobilize, equip and point churches toward missions, he said. Seeing churches respond so passionately in that way was inspirational.
“I would like to believe this is happening across the country,” Wyatt said.
‘Partnering with God’
It was an inspirational year for some pastors, too.
“For me it was seeing the church do that kitchen thing,” said J. Barrett Owen, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Va.
“That kitchen thing,” he said, was the congregation paying $60,000 to renovate the kitchen, including providing all new appliances, for a neighboring Hispanic Methodist church. The project enabled that congregation to go from feeding 100 people to 150 people per week.
“And we get nothing out of it at First Baptist Waynesboro,” Owen said. Collaborating with another church, of a different tradition, is the pay off, he added.
These qualities also helped make 2015 a great year in Owen’s ministry because it’s when he became its pastor.
Owen said he knew the church was the right fit for his style of ministry because he also believes in ecumenical and interfaith outreach and in being a missional presence in the surrounding communities.
The Methodist church kitchen project, he added, was already in place when he arrived.
“This congregation is not selfish with its dollars,” Owen said. “It is mission minded, partnering with God and willing to join in work with other denominations and ethnic groups.”
That’s the kind of witness the church — First Baptist and the wider body of Christ — is going to have to provide in order to be relevant to the culture, Owen said.
“The struggle for the church is … people see them leading out of a sense of fear or distrust and, unfortunately, even hate,” he said. “The church is going to have to … become people who lead from love instead of fear.”
‘Mustering the necessary courage’
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many churches are becoming wiser in how they approach ministry, said congregational coach Bill Wilson, founder of the Center for Healthy Churches.
In the past 12 months, Wilson said, he and other congregational coaches with the center noticed fewer churches trying to address their challenges simply by mimicking mega- and other large churches near them.
They seemed to be more open that before to taking direction and seeing that a lot of hard work lies ahead of them if they are going to be relevant — or even survive.
There was also plenty evidence of that in 2015, as several studies reported rising numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans, disaffected Millennials and other frightening social trends.
“There is no easy button for churches,” Wilson said.
As a result, more are taking responsibility for developing ministries based on their core values, instead of on seeking to drive membership, he said.
“I do think there is a critical mass of churches realizing more and more that if you run the numbers out in a linear fashion, many of these churches are living on borrowed time,” Wilson said.
The past year has also contributed to a held belief that this is one of the best times for churches to exist, because they are being forced to get back to basics and discover their purpose for being.
“In 2015 we’re seeing churches and clergy mustering the necessary courage to be more like Jesus and less like culture,” he said. “There is no way to overstate how important that is going to be in the future.”